CHAPTER I A PENNY CHANGE
Evan Weir's pipe was foul; he threw it down with an exclamation of disgust. Its foulness was symbolic; everything was out of kilter. He looked at the picture he had been painting for a week—rotten! It was a still life; a broken jar and three books on a rag of Persian embroidery. Picking up his pen-knife he deliberately cut the canvas out of the stretcher, and setting a match to a corner of it, tossed it in the empty stove. He paced up and down the room wondering what the devil was the matter with him; he couldn't work; he couldn't read; his friends bored him; life was as flat as beer dregs.
His attic studio was lighted by a dormer window at a height convenient to receive his elbows on the sill. He came to a pause in that position morosely staring out on Washington Square basking in the summer morning sunshine. In some occult way the gilding on the green leaves stabbed at his breast and accused him of futility.
"What the deuce am I doing up here in this dusty garret painting bad pictures while the whole world is alive!" he thought.
He picked up his hat and went slowly down the three flights to the street. At the corner of the square he turned down Macdougall street into the Italian quarter.
This intimate thoroughfare was as crowded as a bee-hive. Happy, dirty, big-eyed children played in the gutters while their obese mothers squatted untidily on the stoops. No lack of the zest of life here. It shamed the pedestrian without cheering him.
"They haven't much to live for," he thought, "and they're not complaining. Why can't I take things as they come, as they do, without searching my soul?"
It was a point of pride with Evan not to look like a denizen of Washington Square. So his hair was cut, and his clothes like anybody's else. He even went so far as to keep his hat brushed, his trousers creased and his shoes polished. For the rest he was a vigorous, deep-chested youth of middle height with rugged features and glowing dark eyes. He had a self-contained, even a dogged look. Like all men susceptible of deep feeling, he did not choose to wear his heart upon his sleeve.
Half an hour later found him in that quaint corner of the island bounded by Liberty street, Greenwich street and the river. It is generally called the Syrian quarter, though shared by the Syrians with immigrants of all nations, whose boarding-houses abound there, convenient to the landing station. A feature of the neighbourhood is the cheap clothing stores where the immigrants buy their first United States suits. These suits hang swinging from the awnings like wasted gallows birds. A hawk-eyed salesman lurks beneath; in other words the "puller-in."
As Evan approached such a place in darkest Greenwich street a customer issued forth of aspect so comical and strange that Evan was drawn out of himself to regard him. It was a tall, lean old man who moved with a factitious sprightliness. He was clearly no immigrant but a native of these United States. He was wearing a hand-me-down which hung in weird folds on his bones....